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CITES in Santiago
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Ting Kok: a conservation issue
The Virtual School of Biodiversity: an update
Aeromonas and Vibrio spp. detected in Mai Po Nature Reserve and Inner Deep Bay
Trawling experience and treasures in Hong Kong waters

The Virtual School of Biodiversity: an update

by Kevin J. Caley and Will Trewhella

Virtual School of Biodiversity, Department of Ecology & Biodiversity, The University of Hong Kong

Back in December 1998, Gray Williams introduced Porcupine readers (see: Porcupine! 18) to a new collaborative teaching initiative, called the "Virtual School of Biodiversity" (VSB) (Fig. 1) that was going on in the Department of Ecology & Biodiversity (DEB). That was four years ago, so it is about time you had an update on some of the things the VSB has been up to since then.

Fig. 1. The VSB logo

Firstly though, a quick reminder of what the VSB is all about. The VSB has it roots in a university-level teaching collaboration in the United Kingdom, known as the "Biodiversity Consortium" that was developed by the Biology department in the University of Nottingham. During the 1990s, this project carried out research and development in the field of ‘technology-mediated, student-centred teaching’ in biology. So what exactly is ‘technology-mediated, student-centred’ teaching? It is basically a fancy way of describing using computers to deliver teaching resources, though there is much more to it than that. Information Technology of various types (CD-Roms, multimedia, email and the World Wide Web) can be used to create and deliver teaching resources, to help foster an ‘on-line’ teaching and learning community, and to share these resources amongst a wide audience. The student-centred side of this project focuses on providing opportunities for students to investigate a topic at their own pace and depth, rather than by simple ‘rote learning’; this is regarded as a better way to get students to understand what they are being taught.

The opportunity arose in 1998 to turn this project into an international collaboration, and the VSB was set up between the University of Nottingham, The University of Hong Kong (HKU) and the Natural History Museum, London. The main objective of the VSB is developing and delivering good, technology-mediated teaching resources in the field of biodiversity. The VSB was a timely project, since its launch coincided with HKU’s student laptop initiative, and a growing awareness of the role the World Wide Web (WWW) has to play in education.

With support from the VSB’s core partners, and funding from a range of sources (DEB, HKU, the University Grants Council, the HKU Foundation, and Universitas 21, amongst others) the VSB has tried to develop a model for cross-institutional, collaborative teaching. Here we describe some of these initiatives in detail, and outline where the VSB may go from here.

Biodiversity and Biosystematics teaching resources

Whole organism biology teaching is experiencing increasing pressure in universities these days, as new lecturers are appointed in ‘trendy’ research areas, such as molecular biology. One of the ways the VSB is trying to address this issue is to commission and develop quality teaching resources on biodiversity and biosystematics. The key to getting quality is to approach leading experts in these fields around the world, to get their biological input into the teaching resources. The VSB has developed a system to tap into the biological knowledge of these experts, and develop this into a series of technology-mediated tutorials, without expecting too much IT and pedagogical know-how from them. Over the years, the VSB has built up a portfolio of biodiversity tutorials, which is ever-increasing (http://ecology.hku.hk/vsbhome/Virtschl7_2.htm), and these are being used in DEB’s teaching programme, particularly in the VSB’s flagship module on "Biodiversity".

"Biodiversity" – a flagship module for the VSB

Fig. 1. The VSB logo

Despite its name, prior to the academic year 2000 – 2001 the department did not offer a module in "Biodiversity". Fortunately, this was where the VSB could help. Since 1996, Nottingham had been using some of its technology-mediated biodiversity tutorials to teach a whole module on this subject. So we decided to run this module in DEB as a compulsory component of the Environmental Life Science Programme. Just to make things more complicated, we thought it would be a good idea to run the biodiversity module simultaneously in both Nottingham and Hong Kong, and have formal interactions between the students taking the module in each institution.

The "Biodiversity" module deals with concepts, principles and contemporary issues concerning the earth’s biodiversity at all levels (genetic, species and ecological), as well as social and economic aspects of biodiversity. It also has the central aim of enhancing students’ experience and competence in learning independently (i.e. it is ‘student-centred’), and developing their ability to employ a range of research, IT and communications skills. The bulk of the module’s content is delivered via interactive tutorials available on CD-Rom, rather than conventional lectures, but it is not a totally faceless module. There is a series of seminars on particular biodiversity topics, and group work is encouraged through group projects and use of on-line discussion fora.

This module has been taught by DEB for two years now to around 70 students a year, and is forming part of an increasing array of student-centred teaching initiatives in the department as we try to get students thinking more for themselves and away from conventional, passive learning. The exam marks and evaluations show that this module is a success, and is adding to the department’s reputation in the area of whole organism biology teaching.

Learning Support Centres for supporting student teaching in DEB

On-line student support is an important component of the biodiversity module. With the WWW and e-mail, it is possible to make a move towards ‘paperless’ management for teaching modules such as "Biodiversity". The WWW is also packed with a vast number of useful resources for teaching biology, but this sheer volume of material can be daunting. The VSB has managed to address the issues of module management and provision of quality-assured WWW resources by developing a WWW-based system of teaching support, called "Learning Support Centres" (LSCs), which it has successfully piloted in the department (see LSCs (Fig. 2) provide both a module-specific support framework for teaching and a generic framework, e.g via study skills, news services, careers advise, etc. LSCs are designed to be dedicated resource and communication centres offering direct access to a variety of quality-reviewed WWW-based resources related to the curriculum and to the needs of independent learners. All modules taught by the department have their own LSCs, and these are updated each year by the module convenor, in collaboration with VSB staff.

DEB / Schools links mediated via the VSB

Although the main focus of the VSB has been at university-level teaching, in the last year the VSB has concentrated on developing links with local secondary schools in Hong Kong.

The starting place for these links is an advisory group of teachers and DEB lecturers, set up to find out from the teachers what they would find useful to support their biodiversity and ecology teaching. Out of this came the idea of workshops run by DEB staff to demonstrate how teachers can best organize fieldwork for their students. Four sets of workshops ("Exploring Rocky Shores", "Exploring Mangroves", "Exploring Streams" and "Exploring Sandy Shores") have been held so far, supported by WWW-based resources (http://ecology.hku.hk/jupas) and laminated field ID sheets of the most common species in these habitats.

Fig. 2. The Learning Support Centre "homepage"














A series of bilingual field guides to the fauna and flora of Hong Kong is also being produced in collaboration with AFCD. Four titles - "Rocky Shores", "Hillstreams", "Hillsides" and "Sandy Shores" should be available very soon. Each guide will provide information on around 100 of the most abundant or most obvious species in their respective habitats, give ecological details on individual habitats and how and where to explore them, and on general Hong Kong natural history and ecology. These guides will fill a gap in Hong Kong’s biodiversity education and are being developed in collaboration with local schools, focusing in part on some of the current A-level syllabus needs. They should also improve the general appreciation and understanding of the Hong Kong countryside and biodiversity issues among the next generation of Hong Kong residents, and will have a significant community-wide impact.


VSB and the future

This has been just a taster of some of the things the VSB has been involved in over the last few years, as it tries to explore how technology can be used to help deliver ‘quality assured’ biodiversity teaching resources to a wider audience.

The VSB aims to be an example of good practice for the use and development of IT in learning. If the number of demonstrations of the project to visiting academics that the VSB has been asked to give in both Nottingham and Hong Kong is anything to go by, then it is certainly succeeding in this aim. The VSB has helped the teaching review processes in both biology departments in Nottingham and Hong Kong, being commended in both DEB’s Teaching and Learning Quality Process Review process in the summer of 2002, and in Nottingham’s School of Life and Environmental Science’s Teaching Quality Audit in 2000. The VSB has also entered HKU’s ACITE Award for IT in Education in 2001 and 2002, and won 1st prize for "Best Web-based or IT enhanced learning initiative, including project activities, materials and tools" in both years.

One of the ways forward is to spread the VSB’s model of collaborative teaching to other universities, both in Hong Kong and internationally, and to other educational audiences. So far, this has proved remarkably hard to achieve at the university level, despite initial enthusiasm from several other institutions around the world interested in the biodiversity module and teaching resources; with the growing interest in teaching collaborations world-wide, we hope to break through this hurdle and expand the VSB network. Teaching partnerships – both internationally (through bodies like Universitas 21) and nationally (see this year’s University Grants Committee’s Sutherland report on teaching in Hong Kong, and HKU’s Faculty of Science plans) – are politically flavour of the month. On a technological side, our colleagues in Nottingham are developing the ‘next generation’ in WWW-based learning environments (see: http://whurle.sourceforge.net/) that the VSB and others can use to deliver teaching resources. Growing links with secondary schools in Hong Kong are also showing how the interface between secondary and tertiary education can be bridged.

Biodiversity is facing a global challenge as habitats are lost and species go extinct. Promoting education, public awareness and training in biodiversity can help address these challenges, providing suitable educational resources exist. Developing and sharing these resources is ultimately what the VSB is all about!



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